Sailing into the unknown

I confess I’ve long been both fascinated and horrified by the idea of going on a cruise
Image of Tyler Brûlé

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The Fast Lane’s been covering an extraordinary amount of the globe over the past couple of weeks – at remarkably varying speeds. Last week it was Hong Kong, Tokyo, Lisbon (via Frankfurt) and London. This week it’s Hamburg, Copenhagen, Kiel, Hamburg, Singapore (via Helsinki) and on to London. Last week I shuttled back to Europe in the best first-class product in the sky (Lufthansa’s seat and separate bed configuration, only available on its ageing 747-400s) and was then shuffled on to one of its cramped A321s to Lisbon. This week is was an equally cramped BA A319 to Hamburg – and then an altogether different form of transport to Copenhagen and back.

I confess that I’ve long been fascinated and somewhat horrified by the idea of going on a cruise. The fascination bit comes from a childhood love of grand ocean liners such as the SS Normandie, SS Leonardo da Vinci and SS France, and the idea of moving from one port to the next with all kinds of essential services moving along with you – dance-floor, karaoke and sun loungers.

The horror stems from witnessing too many cruise ships pulling into cities to disgorge coach loads of people in three-quarter length expedition trousers with zip-on/off extensions, matching vests and Crocs; and from fears of being surrounded by generally loud, drunken hordes.

For the best part of a year I’ve been secretly researching the cruise market trying to find a ship that might fit the bill – not too big, with excellent service, well-designed rooms and a sharp director overseeing the kitchens and bars. Would I be able to find a vessel that my Mom would like that wasn’t full of badly-behaved Russians? Was there a ship that offered a similar sun lounger set-up to the beach club my grandmother likes in Forte dei Marmi? What about newspapers? Would I get my copies of the FT, Neue Zürcher Zeitung and Bangkok Post to go with my breakfast? And coffee? Would Mats be happy with the offer from the baristas on board? Would they even have baristas?

I browsed specialist cruise websites, glossy brochures and supplements devoted to people who seem to know what the whole sector is all about. I started crossing off whole companies and vessels. Anything carrying 4,000 passengers – out. Water slides and climbing walls – out. Computer classes and how to use the internet for seniors – out. A conversation with friends in Hong Kong whom I trust on matters of hospitality and good design got the list down to two – Crystal Cruises and Hapag-Lloyd. Crystal is owned by Japanese shipping company NYK – a good start – and that almost had me swayed but Hapag-Lloyd’s Hanseatic roots (it is based in Hamburg) were also a plus and I eventually decided to go with the company famous for its orange and royal blue shipping containers.

After considerable deliberation and soul-searching (Have I lost my mind? Is this what happens north of 40 and on the slope to 50?), I finally picked up the phone and spoke to a very helpful woman at Hapag-Lloyd about its new ship, the MS Europa 2. She answered a variety of questions: “Can we dine when and where we want?” “Ja, natürlich”. “Can I receive phone calls and large attachments that will download in a timely manner?” “Kein problem”. “Are your passengers predominantly from the German-speaking countries or is the mix quite international?” “Hmmm, ja, well we market to an international audience but I would have to say, ummm, ja, most of our passengers are German.”

I was sold. I wrapped up the call by booking two suites that looked like they might be nautical cousins of rooms at the Park Hyatt in Tokyo. While top hotel designer John Morford was not involved in creating the ship’s interiors (this was left to a Hamburg outfit), the vessel did look like a ship in the photographs (rather than a floating city) while still paying attention to all the things the world’s better hotels have mastered – clean lines, good lighting and elegant materials.

Last Sunday we took off from sunny Heathrow and landed in stormy Hamburg. As we made our way to the harbour through driving rain, lightning and crazy winds, locals were taking cover from the sudden storm. When the MS Europa suddenly came into view – all 10-plus decks of her – she looked considerably larger than she did in the photographs.

We pulled up in front of the cruise ship terminal (a bunch of containers with very ugly low-energy lighting) and were greeted by two gentlemen in proper navy uniforms, brass buttons and big umbrellas. At the same time a jolly woman took our names and then some glasses of champagne appeared.

Next week, I’ll tell you what happened over the following 72 hours.

Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine

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